Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112

In 1968, The Confessions of Nat Turner , a book based upon the most significant slave revolt in American history, won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. William Styron’s novel about Turner continues to provoke discussion in the decades since its publication because it addresses the complicated relationship between black versus...

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In 1968, The Confessions of Nat Turner, a book based upon the most significant slave revolt in American history, won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. William Styron’s novel about Turner continues to provoke discussion in the decades since its publication because it addresses the complicated relationship between black versus white, fact versus fiction, and art versus history. The Confessions of Nat Turner has been a controversial novel, but it is also a book that can stand on its artistic merits. To create a rounded character, Styron expanded upon the limited material of the slave’s life presented in the actual confession. The result is a fictional character who is credible. The negative side of Styron’s approach is that it left him vulnerable to charges of racism and historical falsification.

Nine months after publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner, a book of vehement disapproval appeared. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond attacked the novelist for distorting the image of a black hero. They complained that Styron turned a strong black man into an indecisive and emasculated figure. In reality, Turner’s revolt had far-reaching effects because of the strength of its leader. Most slave revolts never got as far as Turner’s Rebellion. The significance of the revolt is easily seen in the reaction to it. Turner undermined the theory that slaves were docile and happy, intensified the always-present fear of slave revolts, provoked the tightening of slave regulations, sparked the enactment of harsher policies toward slaves and free blacks, sped the decline of abolitionism in the South and its rise in the North, and influenced John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. The reception of the novel, especially the ferocity of attacks from black readers, shocked Styron. He mistakenly assumed that Turner’s “heroic” deeds were erased from the historical memory of African Americans.

Styron’s work appeared in print in 1967 as the United States experienced a round of riots and other forms of rebellion by blacks who protested their second-class citizenship. The social and political context of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement shaped the public response to The Confessions of Nat Turner. At the time, some black revolutionaries embraced black philosopher Frantz Fanon’s belief that oppressed peoples could liberate themselves psychologically as well as politically only through murderous violence. Styron convicted Turner of moral blindness and sent him, a penitent, to Judgment. Styron’s critics challenged the presumption that Turner’s actions lacked morality. Vincent Harding, in William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, also faulted the novelist for entering into a black man’s skin and mind. As the other writers in the book also declared, Styron took away Turner’s voice. The voice in the confession is that of Styron. The images are those of Styron. The confession is that of Styron. Rather than meditating on history, as he aimed to do, Styron in the eyes of his critics simply repeated history by erasing the black man from the record of the past.

Additionally, Harding argued that Styron mistakenly believed that he had the right to judge black rebels in the past as well as the present. The charge touched on the issue of whether it is proper for a white writer to use a black character. Styron initially responded to his critics, then chose to back off and let others, such as historian Eugene Genovese, defend him. In 1992, however, Styron broke his silence by penning an essay, “Nat Turner Revisited,” that continued to defend his right to write about the black experience.

Styron also defended his right to use Margaret Whitehead. In reality, this young woman was the only person killed by Turner. She hid in her home as six members of her family died at the hands of the rebelling slaves, then attempted to flee before being beaten to death in a field with a fence post. In Styron’s novel, Turner lusts after white women, particularly Margaret. Black critics faulted Styron for neglecting black women and for supposing that Turner would destroy his movement because of his weakness for white flesh in the form of the escaping white girl at the Harris farm. It seemed that Styron assumed that black women were less desirable than white women, which prompted critics such as Harding to ask whether Styron related Turner’s sexual fantasies or his own. The presumption that black women were second rate deeply offended African Americans. Underlying these criticisms of the black-white romance is the historical fact that many of the thousands of lynchings of black men were justified on the grounds of protecting white women from lustful black men. Styron seemed to support this racist assumption, thereby touching on an extremely sensitive issue to the African American community.

The historical community was a bit kinder to The Confessions of Nat Turner. Genovese, a prominent historian of the slave experience, stated that Styron properly took liberties with historical details. Genovese faulted Styron’s critics for confusing history with fiction and, worse, for demanding that both serve political and ideological agendas. He challenged the white academic community for seeing Turner as a sainted figure because he happened to be on the right side of history. Genovese argued that oppressed people do not have the right to use “any means necessary.” He theorized that Turner may well have been a religious fanatic who not only shed blood but also acknowledged the sin of doing so and sought redemption.

Styron’s major fault appears to be that he did not create the Turner that the revolutionaries of the 1960’s wanted. He aimed for a Turner who is an admirable but necessarily flawed hero who strikes a blow for liberty. As he later stated, a man bedeviled by bloody visions who leads a drunken band of followers to butcher unarmed women and children is not in the same category as a Spartacus or a Toussaint L’Ouverture. Styron intended for his book to shed light on slavery in America and on the modern condition of race relations by showing how the present is bound to the past. Like countless other novelists, he took literary liberties with the historical record to create a recognizably human figure with conflicted but rational motives. To do so, he crossed racial lines, which inflamed racial tensions.

The controversy over The Confessions of Nat Turner essentially imposed an informal boycott on the novel, though this condemnation has weakened in the twenty-first century. The book is useful as much for its literary merit as for its place in the history of censorship and race relations. It illuminates the confrontation between fiction and fact.

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